Editorial: Bold steps needed in the Mideast

It was short but brutal, the eight-day war in November that pit fighters from various factions in Hamas-led Gaza against Israel. The toll: 150 Palestinians and five Israelis dead, plenty of pain and misery on both sides.

Both sides were ready. It just took a spark, which was provided when Gaza militants fired an anti-tank weapon at an army jeep on the Israeli side of the border fence. That incident was said to be retaliation for the killing of a Palestinian boy in an Israeli air attack but, as Israel peace activist Uri Avnery has written, the assault on an Israeli jeep crossed a red line.

After cross-border exchanges, there was a lull. People left their shelters and Hamas’s top military leader, Ahmad Ja’abari, was driving confidently along Gaza City’s main street when his vehicle was destroyed by an Israeli rocket, killing him and sparking the wider conflict. The Israeli attack was a long-planned operation.

Contrary to the December 2008-January 2009 Operation Cast Lead, the main goal of Pillar of Cloud was to destroy Iranian-supplied missiles in Gaza. This was done from the air, avoiding heavy casualties—1,400 Palestinian dead (estimates vary) and 13 Israelis (including four from friendly fire)—of the previous operation.

Still, innocent civilians were killed last month, mainly on the Palestinian side, and life for 2 million Palestinians and Israelis became hell. Gaza-based missiles reached Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but the increasingly effective Iron Dome anti-missile system and weak targeting capability of the Gaza bombers limited the damage.

The ceasefire agreed to with the help of the new Egyptian strongman, Mohamed Morsi, appears to be holding.

Why does this conflict grip the world while relatively little attention is paid to the conflict in Syria that has resulted in 40,000 dead as rebels seek to get rid of the brutal Assad dynasty? The answer goes to the heart of a conflict that began 65 years ago when Arab governments and leaders refused to accept the United Nations-sanctioned partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab enclaves.

In the post-Holocaust climate, most of the world community welcomed the creation of a Jewish state in the ancient homeland of the Israelites. The persistence of a revanchist climate today among revived Islamist forces, and expanding Jewish settlement in the West Bank, has frozen the impetus for a two-state solution.

Given Israel’s overwhelming military power, burgeoning economy and scientific prowess, it is easy to sympathize with dispossessed Palestinians. The optics are not in Israel’s favour. The Palestinians appear to be David battling the Israeli Goliath.

The end result is that Hamas may have added to its standing as a defender of Palestinian rights and honour, even though its battle this time was doomed from the start. Israel cannot tolerate a passive attitude when it is living alongside an entity whose Hamas rulers are sworn to destroy it.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and Fatah leader, appeared weak in the aftermath and needs something to demonstrate that his rejection of violence can be productive.

He scored a diplomatic victory when the United Nations recognized Palestine as a non-member observer state. The Palestinians hope this can help restart peace talks where core issues can be tackled—the status of Jerusalem and West Bank settlements, borders, refugees, water rights and security arrangements.

Israel argued any upgrade of Palestinian status at the UN would pre-empt negotiations necessary to hammer out a deal before it would agree to a Palestinian state. It responded aggressively and negatively with an announcement it planned to build 3,000 units in the area between eastern Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which would occupy the area linking the two cities and reduce north-south contact.

It was a powerful signal from the Netanyahu government that it prefers the hard line of accelerated occupation of land destined for a Palestinian state, rather than the road of compromise and conciliation.

It is regrettable that Canada failed to support the General Assembly motion, recalled its chief Middle East diplomats and is contemplating possible follow-up actions. We agree with Michael Bell, former Canadian ambassador to Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, who said Canada lost an opportunity to back Mahmoud Abbas and his more moderate, non-violent approach.

The UN vote adds an element of urgency and legitimacy to the Palestinian search for an end to the occupation and creation of a viable and contiguous state. There does not appear to be any acceptable alternative to a two-state solution, which Canada, the U.S. and most of the world supports.

Is it not time to take the peace gamble to satisfy the yearning of the majority of Palestinians and Israelis who want to live normal lives, free of bombs, rockets, terror, targeted assassinations, restricted mobility, double standards of justice and occupation?

The stalemate is poisonous, for all, and fraught with danger.

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